Introduction to Responsible Research and Innovation

by Danielle Shanley
PhD Candidate, History Department FASoS

Innovation is everywhere. Companies must constantly innovate to get ahead of the competition; individuals should be ‘innovative’ in order to stand out from the crowd, even nation states talk of innovation as a way of framing their economic policies. Innovation really has become “the emblem of the modern society and a panacea for resolving many problems” (Godin, 2015). When we think about innovation today, we typically think in terms of creativity and originality – being innovative is something to aspire to, a goal that’s realization will undoubtedly reap some form of reward – but when and why did innovation become so all pervasive, and is it something you should be spending more time thinking about?

A (very brief) history of innovation

According to Benoit Godin, whose research spans several centuries and thousands of documents, our love affair with innovation is actually rather recent. Prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century innovation was an accusation, not a compliment. To innovate was to cut into something anew, to break ground, to go against the status quo. Innovators were essentially heretics, revolutionaries or social reformers (Godin, 2016). The Greeks considered innovation to be subversive and political; while once it entered the Latin vocabulary its meaning was less pejorative, representing instead renewal or regeneration. It would continue to fluctuate in use and meaning between revolution and renewal until the start of the nineteenth century when the first indication of its economic affiliation emerged. With the coming of the industrial revolution, technical invention became increasingly important. Slowly, towards the beginning of the twentieth century, innovation began to take on a technological association. Invention and innovation became seen as part of a linear process. To invent was to create, while to innovate was to transform that creation into an application (Godin, 2015).

Throughout much of the twentieth century this linear understanding of knowledge production remained pervasive as is reflected by the classic distinction between basic and applied research. Basic research (also known as fundamental or pure research) is typically associated with things like hard science, or pure mathematics. Basic research is what generates new ideas, new knowledge about particular phenomena, regardless of any immediate sense of what it could be relevant for, or applied to – hence the notion of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”. For example, the search for the Higgs boson or the 10,000 year clock project. On the other hand, applied research (as the name suggests), is research that is conducted with a specific application in mind. This type of research is driven by what is going in the real world and is therefore highly practical and solution oriented. Examples might include the development of specific medicines, or investigating new methods of crop production.

Now this is of course a vast over-simplification for a number of reasons (as social studies of science have shown that knowledge production is a complex, multidirectional process which does not take place in a vacuum) but it is helpful when thinking about the idea of innovation we have today. Before World War 2, the distinction between basic and applied research was a distinction that mainly held within the research system itself, it represented the different types of research problems which scientists, academics and intellectuals busied themselves with. As Godin shows, after World War 2, the concept of innovation became far more of a catch-all term. Increasingly used by governments, policy makers and academics to refer to the application of research – to the real world. Instead of there being a clear divide in terms of research that was to be done for its own sake, and research that was conducted with a clear intention as to its application, the traditional basic/applied dichotomy was replaced by a new one: research/innovation (Godin, 2016). This conceptual shift (which might seem a little abstract) was central in ushering in the notion of innovation which dominates today – one which primarily concerns the introduction of a new product, or technology to the market.

Responsible innovation

In recent years it appears that innovation regularly gets a new makeover. From breakthrough innovation to radical innovation, sustainable innovation to disruptive innovation (not to mention open source innovation, inclusive innovation, frugal innovation – the list goes on), there appears to be a continual need for innovation to be, well – innovated.

In my research I am interested in ideas concerning the notion of ‘responsible innovation’. Introduced into academic discourse around 2010 responsible research and innovation (RRI) is broadly considered a (relatively) new approach to innovation (Owen & Goldberg, 2010). Taken up by the European Commission, RRI cuts across the various themes of Horizon 2020 (the huge EU funding programme for research and innovation – nearly 80 billion euros – which has existed since 2014). If you haven’t come across RRI yet, the chances are you probably will sometime soon (visit the European commission’s website for research funding and it is pretty hard to avoid). According to Commissioner Carlos Moedas, RRI is a cornerstone of Horizon2020 whose objective is the implementation of the ‘Innovation Union’, the three goals of which are: Open Innovation, Open Science and Open to the World – all of which will help to secure Europe’s leading position in a rapidly transforming global


As far as the Commission is concerned, it is clear that RRI is pretty important – but what exactly is it? Von Schomberg (2013) provides us with the following definition:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (p. 19).

So RRI typically includes having teams from different backgrounds, with different areas of expertise, who come together to identify research problems and work towards solutions (i.e. interdisciplinarity – sound familiar?). It also requires the inclusion of social and ethical dimensions throughout the research process (i.e. reflexivity), as well as a clear orientation towards policy goals (i.e. societal relevance). There is often also a requirement for the inclusion of end users (i.e. public engagement), not only at the end of the research, or design, process but throughout the process from conception to completion.[ii]

RRI has grown rapidly in the last few years and is now pretty pervasive across the European research landscape.  It has its own journal[iii], its own professional organizations, several annual conferences, as well as government and intergovernmental funding and support. But RRI hasn’t just come out of nowhere. It has come from a certain place, or, places, and has travelled in different directions before becoming what it is now. As the google Ngram (below) shows, the use of the term ‘responsible innovation’ actually peaked in the 1970s.


It is no coincedence that the sharp rise from the 1960s-1970s parallels the emergence of both policy studies, and science and technology studies, as new disciplines as well as a more critical turn more generally across academic science. In the 60s, 70s and 80s scholars increasingly asked questions about the direction of science, about how the scientific system was being organized, and more broadly, about the relationship between science and society. As a result many ideas that are popular today, like interdisciplinarity and public engagement, began to circulate, being picked up and experimented with by various organizations, networks and research centres. Despite this, practitioners of RRI rarely look back to this time period for inspiration. RRI is, for the most part, considered a fairly new concept, yet, as we can see, the ideas which it represents are firmly rooted in the past.

Whilst RRI is still thought to be fairly difficult to define, it has, in some sense, stabilized in meaning. What is often the case with concepts, once this happens, is that we start to take them for granted, forgetting that other realities were possible. We tend to see the way we are thinking about them now and the types of questions we are asking as the only things that are relevant. Yet, to use an old adage, if history has taught us anything, we should know how crucial it is to be critical of what appears to be (fast becoming) the status quo. That is why over the next few years, as part of my PhD project, ‘A transnational history of responsible innovation’, I’ll be looking to the 1970s and 1980s for stories which can be told from the perspective of ‘responsible’ innovation. I’ll be looking for what worked out (as well as what didn’t) in order to see how previous scenarios might inform current ideas about RRI.

Innovation wasn’t always thought of as the panacea it is today. Over the centuries innovation was a highly contested notion, which only took on its current meaning through its affiliation with the application of knowledge – in other words, through its becoming technological. But what about that second question – why should you be spending your time thinking about it? Well, I think our brief foray into the world of RRI goes some way to providing an answer. While all of the hype surrounding RRI may well dissipate over the next few years, what the history (as I hope to show in my research) tells us, is that the ideas which RRI now represents have been growing and developing over several decades suggesting that they do and will have staying power. Whether, or not, you are planning a career in research or policy making, the six “keys” which form the basis of RRI[iv]; engagement; gender equality; science education; open access; ethics; and governance, are relevant to us all. According to the Commission, RRI is about “Europe’s ability to respond to societal challenges”, suggesting that the only way in which these will be addressed is by people from all walks of life, scientists and engineers, policy makers and activists, all engaging in dialogues together. Thinking about the relationship between science and society, both in the future and in the past, should not only be of interest to researchers then, but to us all as citizens.


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